Sunday, July 16, 2000

Dubious honor: Ohio's most undriveable city

Cincinnati tops in crashes

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati has been called America's most liveable city, but here's a superlative the Chamber of Commerce won't be touting:

        Cincinnati — home to speeders, red-light runners and lunatic lane-changers — may have the worst drivers in the state.

        Cincinnati has more car crashes per registered vehicle than any city in Ohio, according to the Ohio Insurance Institute. Its study of 1998 crashes statewide ranks the city ahead of Cleveland for the first time in the 10 years that data has been compiled.

        “The numbers speak for themselves,” insurance insti tute spokesman Mitch Wilson says. “Cincinnati has had quite a dubious record over the years.”

        Cincinnati and Cleveland have always jockeyed at the top of the annual crash list. But in 1998, the latest year for which statistics are available, the Queen City edged out Cleveland with one crash for every 14.2 registered vehicles.

        Cleveland's rate was one crash for every 15.6 vehicles registered; the state average was one for every 30.

        Cincinnati's total of 17,508 crashes that year translates to 48 accidents a day, or one every 30 minutes. The study counted any crash that was reported to police, from crunched bumpers to total losses.

        And the number of wrecks isn't letting up. Police reported more than 20,900 accidents in 1999; through June of this year, more than 10,300 have occurred.

        Thirteen people have died on Cincinnati roads this year compared to 22 during all of last year. The number of people injured in crashes this year (1,914) also is on pace to eclipse last year's total (3,547).

        “You definitely want to make sure that you are being a defensive driver if you're driving through Cincinnati,” Mr. Wilson says.

        The most common driving mistakes are following too close, driving too fast, not paying attention and failing to yield or signal a turn. Cars are most likely to be hit from behind. Bad weather, including rain, snow and fog, make risky driving worse.

        Cincinnati's location on three major highways (Interstates 71, 74 and 75) may contribute to the crash rate because accidents occur most often in high-traffic areas, Mr. Wilson says.

        Heavy roadway construction also diverts drivers from their usual commuting routes and can bring fast-moving traffic to unexpected stops, he says.

        “Up in Columbus and Cleveland the terrain is flat and straight,” says John Stanley, owner of Stanley's Drivers Training Inc. on Cheviot Road.

        Here, some hilly, curvy drives like Rybolt Road and Buffalo Ridge on the west side are treacherous, narrow stretches that have become popular hill-hopping spots for younger drivers, he says.

        “One of the things I try to do is teach my students to adjust their speed to the terrain,” Mr. Stanley says. “We can't change all the streets. But we need to change the drivers' attitudes about the roads.”

        This isn't the first time Cincinnati has earned the distinction as the state's “Crash City.” Two years ago, an Enquirer analysis of state traffic accident records from 1996 showed that the city ranked No. 1 in crashes, based on population.

        The city recorded 19,159 wrecks that year, or 53.5 for every 1,000 people living here. The state average for 1996 was 35.5 wrecks per thousand. Cincinnati also led the state in and 1994 and '95, records showed.

        The Ohio Insurance Institute found that driving in the suburbs is considerably safer. In all four Ohio counties that make up Greater Cincinnati, the crash rate was close to the state average.

        Cincinnati police say not to read too much into the institute's crash data. Sgt. Rudy Gruenke, a member of the police traffic unit, says there is no real consistency statewide in reporting accident statistics. While Cincinnati reports all of its crash numbers to the Ohio Department of Public Safety, other cities don't, he says.

        And some traffic analysts say a more accurate measure of crash rates would include a calculation of actual miles traveled by motorists instead of accidents per population size or registered vehicles.

        “I've driven a lot of places, and I don't know that we are any better or worse than anywhere else,” Sgt. Gruenke says. “Like in every big city, we've got people trying to get from point A to point B as quickly as they can. And rather than stop for the yellow lights, they try to speed through and wind up hitting another car.”

        Jesse Armstrong, 25, of Bridgetown was rear-ended two months ago by another motorist while on his way to work in Clifton. The jolting fender-bender caused him to miss several days of work with a strained back and did $2,300 in damage to his car.

        “It seems like I come close to getting into a wreck every day,” says Mr. Armstrong, who works for the Ohio EPA.

        Since his wreck, he says he's much more conscious of other motorists, especially those driving behind him.

        “That accident has definitely made me aware of how many more people are idiots when they are behind the wheel,” Mr. Armstrong says.

        Despite the collision rate, Cincinnati drivers have some of the lowest auto insurance premiums in the state. In 1998, the latest year for which data are available, the average cost for car insurance here was $775 a year.

        Cleveland's average was $1,330, Youngstown's $1,194 and Columbus' $793. Insurance in small towns and rural areas was $677, the Ohio Insurance Institute says.

        “Crash frequency in the area you live in does factor into your insurance rates, but it's not the only determining factor,” institute spokeswoman Mary Bonelli says. “Frequency and severity of wrecks along with the type of vehicle, how it is used and the age of the driver come into play as well.”

        Ms. Bonelli says accident rates may be higher in Cincinnati, but auto theft, death or property damage rates may be higher in other cities. Plus, competition among insurance providers can affect premiums, she says.

        Not everyone worries about Cincinnati's high crash rate. For people like Ralph Johnson, it's good for business.

        Mr. Johnson, a manager for Reese Towing on Montgomery Road in Pleasant Ridge, says he's towed as many as five cars a day from crash scenes.

        “I been around for 20 years and you get used to seeing all the accidents,” says Mr. Johnson. “I guess this is a pretty good place to have a towing business.”


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